Little Ice Age catastrophic storms and the destruction of a Shetland Island community

Publication date: November 2017Source:Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 87
Author(s): Matthew Bampton, Alice Kelley, Joseph Kelley, Michael Jones, Gerald Bigelow
Subarctic communities are useful bellwethers of human adaptability to climate change. Previous studies have compared the socio ecological adaptations of culturally comparable but geographically separated communities such as medieval Greenland and Iceland. In the Shetland Islands during the Little Ice Age (LIA) unusual storminess in the 16th and 17th centuries deposited wind driven sand in the township of Broo, Dunrosssness, and on its surrounding estates. Documents, historical records and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dated sand layers show the history of deposition, and reveal two episodes of sand movement one from the mid 16th century, the second from the late 17th or early 18th century. Artifacts, records and stratigraphy suggest Broo’s inhabitants successfully resisted the 16th century sand incursion, but were driven from their homes by the early 18th century. Adjacent communities embedded in the same socio economic culture survived the same events and remain viable settlements to the present day. Wind simulations demonstrate that storm conditions are likely to produce markedly lower wind velocities in the area around Broo than over the surrounding landscape making it singularly vulnerable to sand inundation. In this instance human ingenuity and resilience could not counter the misfortune of location. We conclude that in this marginal environment small geographical differences had profound and lasting impact on survivability during an episode of catastrophic environmental change.